Wednesday, November 30, 2011

True Poverty and the Occupy Movement

It has, at times, been amusing to overhear conservative criticism and fear of the Occupiers. Many believe that the protesters want some sort of socialistic notion like a wealth redistribution scheme. It was this same insincere, disingenuous anxiety that Joe the Plumber, then John McCain gave voice to during the last election. Few leftists have ever proposed such a scheme with a straight face. It's a concept more in line with Stalinist Russia than America, circa 2011. What has never really been taken into account, however, are sure-fire methods that might give the have not’s an ability to sustain wealth for generations. For example, nearly one in five schoolchildren now lives in poverty in the United States. This income disparity often exists in rural parts of the country, rather than within cities or suburbs.

In Alabama, for example, 39.6% of all Wilcox County residents live below the poverty line. Wilcox Country is part of the Black Belt area of the state, a majority African-American region sometimes referred to as Alabama’s Third World for its sustained lack of adequate basic services and sufficient household income. Ironically, the fertile soil of the region was ideal for growing crops and sustaining plantations. It provided plentiful income for the 1% of its day. Slavery may have long been outlawed, but the unpaid descendants of the peculiar institution have remained in the same location for at least the last two centuries.

Alabama has struggled with generational poverty, which means that generation after generation of families have been poor. But now, Tilly said, job losses because of the rough economy are pushing new families below the poverty line.

I would like to see an Occupy demonstration in the Black Belt. Its residents have been an overlooked part of the 99% well before anyone thought to frame the argument in those terms. Though financial problems are troubling, regardless of the individual situation, I have long believed that any solution that does not take into account the least of us will never succeed. Good times may arrive again in a while, that is for some of us. Camps may be taken down. Grievances may be met. But for the residents of Wilcox County, they will likely be nearly as poor as they always were. The results of a booming economy rarely make a dent in the overall quality of life for this sort of crippling, institutionalized poverty.

If Occupy wanted to resemble the inspiring movements of time past, it might take into account the most basic of needs. Once, and not all that long ago, people of all races, creeds, colors, and privilege left their comfortable existences. All of this was in an effort to register to vote several black residents of rural Southern counties. Many of the people had never before been able to participate in direct democracy. Brave people left the North and headed down on busses, sometimes facing physical assault, often being threatened with insults. Others put their lives in danger in a multitude of ways, over and over again, with a kind of fierce, firm resolve. That same sort of spirit is needed today. That sort of communal, unselfish participation is needed today.

The basic challenges present now for many people I know personally is demoralizing and frustrating. Many of my friends have dealt with lengthy periods of unemployment, this despite holding multiple degrees and the student loan debt to prove it. Some have had to return to their parents’ house for basic lodging, which I call retreating back to the womb. These are embarrassing and pride-wounding decisions to make, but they have little to no choice in the matter. Others have swallowed hard and taken money from family. None of these acts, however, can be defined as a catastrophe. Returning home is, at least, an option on the table. Sympathetic middle class parents can provide temporary stimulus relief funds. The poorest of the poor, by contrast, have never had this ability. They, like Blanch DuBois, have always had to depend on the kindness of strangers. Sometimes our kindness is conditional. Sometimes it is fickle. Often it is simply not present.

Occupying Wilcox County, for example, would not make much sense based on current strategy. It may be worthwhile for those camped out to appreciate the benefits of city living. Without adequate sources of free meals and sleeping bags, the movement wouldn’t be able to sustain itself. But the question then becomes which 99 percent we are referring to, really. This then reveals that there’s a vast amount of variation in making that distinction. The stratification and delineation between those who are not independently wealthy on the other side of the line is appropriately vast. We may all be members of the 99%, but if this is class war as some think, we see a battle being raged between the wealthy and the middle class, by in large.

If it is morality and perspective that is needed most here, we may all need a reminder.

For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Reflections of My Life

This song can be best described as maudlin, but the melody is catchy. It has long been a favorite for that alone, not the depressing lyrics. Here, I sang the first line of the chorus twice in its proper register and then the remainder at a lower octave. It was just too much to sustain otherwise, and I didn't want to blow out my vocal chords. The results roughen up the vocals, but that could be a desired state in this song.

As for the lyrics, many have put them in the mouth of a soldier. I record all of these videos early in the morning when I have time to do them, so you can likely see just how sleepy I am still.

The changing
Of sunlight to moonlight
Reflections of my life
Oh, how they fill my eyes

The greetings
Of people in trouble
Reflections of my life
Oh, how they fill my eyes

All my sorrows
Sad tomorrows
Take me back to my own home

All my cryings
Feel I'm dying, dying
Take me back to my own home

I'm changing, arranging
I'm changing, I'm changing everything
Oh, everything around me

The world is a bad place
A bad place, a terrible place to live
Oh, but I don't wanna die

All my sorrows
Sad tomorrows
Take me back to my own home

All my cryings
Feel I'm dying, dying
Take me back to my own home

All my sorrows
Sad tomorrows
Take me back to my own home

Monday, November 28, 2011

Gingrich's Own Worst Enemy

Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District encapsulates the most ideological conservative area of the Atlanta Metro Area. Its residents, by in large, are white, fiscally conservative, heavily affluent, highly educated, and thoroughly partisan Republicans. Evangelical Christians are found in significant quantities. East Cobb is the shorthand designation many Atlanta residents often use to refer to this legislative partition. The area of town formally designated as East Cobb has never incorporated, this to avoid paying its share in taxes. In a city built on an influx of new money, East Cobb is home to conservative Georgia old money.

The Sixth also happens to have elected Newt Gingrich to the U.S. House for ten consecutive terms in office. East Cobb’s insularity and bubble mentality leave it resistant to change and openly intolerant of outside viewpoints. This is an area where residents regularly reinforce the impregnable fortress by sending their children to private schools. One of them, East Cobb Christian School, has a stellar academic reputation and correspondingly deferential attitude to God. The school’s website describes its theological beliefs in this way. “We believe that all truth is God's truth, and God has inerrantly and infallibly revealed His truth in the Bible.” This is biblical literalism and an unquestioned devotion to a Higher Power.

Former House Speaker Gingrich has long sought the office of President of the United States. He has, however, yet to discover that what works in East Cobb will not work on a grander scale. Gingrich often combines a hotheaded shoot-from-the-hip style with a condescending professorial tone. The latter points back to his time spent as a history professor, his occupation before politics. Gary Trudeau’s political comic strip Doonesbury famously rendered then-Speaker Gingrich as a bomb with a lit fuse. Even in a hopelessly divided Washington, a scorched earth policy is terrible strategy.

Much like John McCain’s surprising about-face in 2008, Gingrich’s campaign was earlier counted out and now has managed to regain its viability. This, of course, is due to the implosion of prior front-runners with significantly worse baggage. Gingrich has significant skeletons in his closet, many of which could be potentially fatal should he seriously challenge Mitt Romney for the Republican Party’s nomination. These include the embarrassing revelation that the Speaker was actively involved in an affair at the same time President Clinton was being impeached for the same offense. Though Gingrich did eventually marry his mistress, Evangelicals have sufficient reason to balk at a Gingrich candidacy on that fact alone. What makes it worse is that he has been married three times.

Candidate Gingrich has a disconcerting habit of digging himself into one series of holes after another, then being forced into damage control as he digs himself out. In May, after appearing to support Medicare instead of vowing to dismantle the entitlement program, his campaign was all but given up for dead. Several major aides resigned and Gingrich was forced to retool without adequate funds. It is still unclear whether those early staff defections and overall money troubles have left the campaign unable to sustain front-runner status.

Even so, love him or hate him, Gingrich is a survivor. For the first time, a survey of likely voters conducted by the private firm Public Policy Polling has showed him in first place. Over the past several days, Gingrich received the endorsement of the New Hampshire-based Manchester Union-Leader. The New Hampshire primary will be held on January 10 of next year and be a significant divining rod for eventual campaign success. Taking into account the candidate’s flaws and failings, the paper still believed Gingrich to be the strongest contender. It wrote, “Newt Gingrich is by no means the perfect candidate. But Republican primary voters too often make the mistake of preferring an unattainable ideal to the best candidate who is actually running.”

In what has been a surreal, underwhelming Presidential Election campaign, good enough may be all any party can achieve. Instead of solutions, distractions have sufficed. The decline and shocking rebirth of Newt Gingrich shows the results of a divided Republican Party, one rent asunder by the internecine bickering of Tea Party ideologues and the GOP establishment. Much like Gingrich, the Party itself was said to be on life support not all that long ago, but returned to power based on consistent economic woes. It has yet to regenerate to prior prominence. That it would return to a leader forced to resign in disgrace thirteen years ago is quite telling, indeed.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Quote of the Week

"A wise man who stands firm is a statesman. A fool who stands firm is a catastrophe"- Anonymous

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Politics of Money and Body Acceptance

Before I go any further, I am conscious of how carefully I need to pick my words. Be patient with me as I thread a tiny needle on a search for the truth. The center is what I seek. I’ll save the sides for others who may want to further the debate, but will really only start an argument. I’m not looking for scapegoats, just a middle ground.

On a crowded flight home from Thanksgiving with the family, my trip became even more stressful. My seatmate’s physical size, due to obesity, was such that she took up all of her seat and half of mine. It’s difficult for me to feel very comfortable when unable to achieve some degree of personal space. As it stands, I felt wedged into my seat. I had no ability to place separation between the two of us. Boundaries have been increasingly essential for me as I’ve begun a specialized form of therapy to treat PTSD. Feeling trapped in close quarters can make me feel panicked and sometimes triggers a panic attack.

But even if I didn’t have a specific psychological issue, I would have still been physically uncomfortable. As I write this, I am cognizant of arguments against fat shaming and in favor of body acceptance. On the other hand, I am also aware of counter-arguments pushing for personal accountability and responsible decision making. The best way to proceed from here might be to spell out the facts. Airplane seats are not made for travelers who are larger than a certain average body size.

Increasingly, Americans are growing more obese due to an oft-cited sedentary lifestyle and corresponding poor dietary habits. Airlines, which have lost considerable sums of money in the last ten years, have little incentive to design seats or room specifically to accommodate those who are larger than the statistical norm. In fact, the exact opposite has been the case. Air travelers have even less space to themselves then at any other time.

It often pains me to go back home, because I regularly observe those who, for economic and cultural reasons, among others, do not place a priority on their physical wellbeing. Many smoke heavily, eat a steady diet of unhealthy food, and do not exercise sufficiently. As for me, I live in Washington, DC, where wealth and means converge. Exercise is trendy, as is eating healthily.

Grocery stores, co-ops, and farmer’s market, all devoted to providing high quality food products are everywhere. An affluent population is willing and able to pay more for the privilege. Are these same options present in Alabama, especially in the rural areas or the inner city? Not so much. Does a tradition and corresponding cultural expectation of these sorts of beneficial practices exist? Not really.

Cities are concentrations of wealth and the highly educated. There is no financial incentive for either of them to leave and spread elsewhere. Quality food is rarely found in areas of poverty. Most often, only cheaper, lower quality food is affordable and available. This includes fast food. To speak to my own situation, there is no financial incentive for psychologists and medical practitioners to leave the cities for other areas, even though their services are needed everywhere. Instead, some would rather charge rates per hour that only the wealthy can afford. This is where the situation really gets complicated. Those of us who believe in equality must first consider an economic system that is predicated on profit and basic, almost instinctive class inequality.

A paternalistic argument, either on one side or the other, is eventually going to triumph. Either we will grow less and less tolerant of those who are extremely overweight, or we will normalize substantial weight gain and those who qualify as obese. From a profit standpoint alone, money can be made regardless of where we go as a society. If, for the sake of making money, we (and especially women) are expected to conform to a smaller cultural norm of socially acceptable size, some will resort to unhealthy means to achieve it.

As has been the case forever and a day, those unable to manage this distinction will be left out. If accommodation is where we head instead, more changes will result, changes well beyond enlarging the seats on a commercial airliner. I do always hope that a more realistic notion of feminine beauty and body size might someday be reached. What exists now is destructive in its own way. However, if it is reached by decreasing the life expectancy and general health of every American, consider me ambivalent.

Saturday Video

In pitch dark I go walking in your landscape.
Broken branches trip me as I speak.
Just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.
Just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.

There’s always a siren
Singing you to shipwreck.
(Don’t reach out, don’t reach out)
Steer away from these rocks
We’d be a walking disaster.
(Don’t reach out, don’t reach out)

Just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.
(There’s someone on your shoulder)
Just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.
(There’s someone on your shoulder)

There there

Why so green and lonely?
Heaven sent you to me.

We are accidents
Waiting waiting to happen.

We are accidents
Waiting waiting to happen.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Few Harmless Pictures

Me in motion, Edvard Munch style, around Denny Chimes.

Bryant-Denny Stadium in a "quiet" moment.

Overcast skies.

Stadium and frat houses.

(Click on each picture to embiggen)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Or, to Put It Another Way...

Holiday Break

Today is the day before Thanksgiving and I have also contracted a case of stomach flu. I don't really have the concentration and energy for very much.

However, I do hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving with your biological families or those who you have designated as family. This holiday can be warm and pleasant for some, stressful and problematic for others. I've had a little bit of both in my life.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Women's Historical Role in Meeting

As I examine the whole of my religious past, I can say without equivocation that I observed one essential constant. Even from a very young age, I recall the active presence of women in positions of leadership and authority. Women have long been a majority in the congregations of the average Christian or historically Christian church, but attaining full gender equality in leadership roles has sometimes taken centuries. Liberal denominations and faith groups have made a particular effort in this regard, where conservative ones still drag their feet.

Raised a United Methodist, I recall the church that I would formally join at age 12. As is true with some groups, I went through a process of confirmation before I could be considered a formal member. The minister who taught the classes was female. I honestly don’t recall anyone having a problem with it, male or female. Because I was an exceedingly shy child, the Reverend felt particularly maternal towards me. Had I been able to apply the vocabulary and knowledge I now know, I would have identified her as a fellow introvert.

When at age 18 I became a Unitarian Universalist, the installed minister was also a woman. Because of my religious upbringing, I never believed that there was anything wrong with it. I never could understand the reservations of those who thought otherwise.

For a sense of perspective, from its foundation roughly 370 years ago to its cohesion as a formal faith group 20 years later, the Religious Society of Friends were quite progressive on the subject. Women were granted a degree of autonomy from the beginning, allowed to preach during Worship, pen Epistles, and vocally state their opinions. Being part of the direct leadership structure, however, could be problematic. Certain Meetings were opposed to the idea of women in positions of power and some Meetings were not. But there were enough passionate, energetic people involved that the issue was never buried completely and constantly remained in debate.

A concession to this controversy was the formation of separate men’s and women’s Business meetings. It should be noted here that women were not prevented from participating in Meeting for Worship, should they choose. That was a joint gathering. The nature of unprogrammed Worship places authority for speaking in the hands of whoever feels a leading from the Spirit, male or female. That in itself is a kind of leveling of the playing field, though many did not wish for it to stop there. George Fox, the founder, sought to give women’s meetings a further degree of autonomy. He did so by insisting that they be granted the ability to oversee marriage requests performed under care of the entire Meeting. This was an unpopular sentiment among many Friends, but Fox held fast to it, in his typically stubborn style.

The opposition regarding precisely where marriage intentions were submitted was not necessarily motivated by Patriarchal beliefs. Instead, those who opposed the distinction did not wish to have proscribed roles for either sex. In the beginning of the Quaker movement, a liberating and attractive element for many was present in its relative fluidity and organizational near-anarchy. Meetings in the North of England did, however, adhere to beliefs found in the Pauline Epistles of the New Testament. Those scriptural passages stated that women must cover their hair and take a submissive role within the church. The more progressive voices in the South of England did not adhere to these beliefs, nor did Fox.

An early and severe conflict within Quakerism began in the form of a well-spoken, intelligent, and charismatic London-based preacher named James Nayler. To begin with, several of Nayler’s female followers made substantial waves with existing Quaker leaders. The conflict between the two was never fully mediated. But it should be noted that Nayler had intensely loyal male followers as well, though the effect produced was a paradoxical kind of adoration and isolation. Sometimes inherent in this adulation was a projected kind of eroticism. Or to put it another way, a cult of personality formed around him, insulating Nayler from the rest of the world. Like a celebrity whose unwise choice in company proves to be his or her undoing, this decision would eventually have disastrous repercussions.

Even before Nayler’s eventual arrest and conviction for blasphemy, it had been strongly rumored that he was sexually involved with his most visible and vocal associate, Martha Simmonds. This might have been less objectionable if it were not for the fact that Nayler left behind a wife and child in his native Yorkshire. Later, Nayler would assert that he felt strong sexual desire for at least one of the women around him, but was quick to say that he never consummated the relationship. Nothing was ever proven, though some always had their doubts. Though he never believed himself to be anything other than mortal, some of his followers began to believe that he was Jesus Christ reincarnated.

Should this issue have occurred within any other faith group, the backlash against women might have been swift, even brutal. Instead, the conflict centered around the followers of the rogue minister Nayler and the more orthodox followers of George Fox. Though matters remained tense for a time, they were eventually resolved. It is worth noting that the incorporation of women into the Quaker framework was such an automatic given that no one felt any need to reach for a very commonplace scapegoat. Once we all can reach that apex, we can focus on other matters.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Shameless Self-Promotion

Before I begin, apologies for the numerous typos in the previous post. I am not feeling my best today. Proper context was essential for understanding and that just didn't happen without substantial revision.

On a happier note, I have been very recently published in Voices From the 99 Percent: An Oral History of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. The editor is Lenny Flank. My contribution was an essay that included the perspectives and opinions of actual Occupy DC demonstrators.

And, I would be remiss if I did not properly promote it here.

Regarding Politicians, Americans Get What They Put into the System

A little under a month from now, the Iowa Caucus will be held, signifying the formal beginning of the 2012 Presidential Election. A preoccupied nation, consumed with its own worries, has only devoted half an eye to the process. This election cycle has, thus far, been one of the least notable on record. The attention of the American people has focused primarily on outside issues.

Beginning on a cold Iowa day in early January, the race will heat up somewhat, but will not compete with 2008 for voter engagement and participation. Those days seem like a distant dream, one discarded along with the Obama glow, which once held such promise and convivial warmth.

For a means of contrast, four years ago, an exciting primary race for both the Democratic and Republican Party was well underway. Weary of the divisiveness produced by two Bush terms and eager for something new, the country embraced optimism and faith in the political process. Since then, the economic woes that likely cemented Obama’s win have changed from help to hindrance.

A particularly romantic notion states that true leaders are birthed in times of crisis. Almost every major party candidate speaks to some version of this idea while on the campaign trail. This time, the power of positive thinking has been replaced by cynical invective and outright distraction. It is hard to believe that a slate of candidates on the Republican side could be less competent or disingenuous. The true tragedy of all is that the GOP will be obligated to formally nominate one of them.

In response, Occupy protesters speak the minds of many, though individual grievances vary wildly. Complicated problems defy easy solutions. During these anxious times, many would reduce the truth to oversimplification, or failing that, slander his or her opponent. Instead of taking the time to address directly at least a few of the country’s woes, candidates have opted for the easy way out. Gimmickry, invective, and soundbyte policies are superfluous and utterly useless. The Elephant in the room aspect of the forthcoming Republican primary season will be soundly tested.

It remains to be seen how thorough vetting will affect the outcome. Candidates thus far have often been their own worst enemy, showing skill only in how to effectively shoot themselves in the foot. Only Herman Cain, thus far, has seen substantial and unforeseen indiscretions damage his chances. In addition to being a weak field, each candidate has accumulated substantial baggage over time. Most are known quantities.

The need for genuine leadership has never subsided. Our Founding Fathers devised a system of governance where citizens would directly intercede when necessary. We have instead created a new caste of people, that being politicians, who we have designated to do our work for us. It shouldn’t be surprising when we get exactly what we have contributed to the system. We have stood impassively on the sidelines for far too long. Americans can put in a hundred hours a week into a job that inspires them, but will never think to offer themselves as candidates for elective office.

It is, therefore, a question of skewed priorities that faces us today. Politics is an occupation no more or no less dirty than any number of others. The mere perception of purity as we define it harms us as much as the many subpar leaders we consistently elect and re-elect. Every industry in our capitalist system ultimately can be traced back to something ethically and morally repugnant. Still, that should not prevent us engaging directly to do our part. The real change begins with us. Indeed, it always has.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Quote of the Week

"It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour."- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Saturday Video

Help, I'm a rock!
Help, I'm a rock!
Help, I'm a rock!
Somebody helps me

Wow, man, it's a drag being a rock
(Help, I'm a rock)
(Help, I'm a rock)
(Help, I'm a rock)

I wish I was anything but a rock
Heck, I'd even like to be a policeman

Hey, you know what?
You know maybe if I practice, you know
Maybe if I pass my driving test

I could get a gig drivin' that
bus that pick the freaks up
In front of Ben Frank's, right?

Help, I'm a cop!
Help, I'm a cop!
Help, I'm a cop!
Help, I'm a cop!
(Help, I'm a rock)
Help, I'm a cop!
(Help, I'm a rock)

It's a drag being a cop
I think I'd rather be the mayor

Always wondered what I was
gonna be when I grew up, you know
Always wondered whether or not
whether or not I could make it

You know, in society, because,
You know, it's a drag when you're rejected
So I tore the cover off a book of matches
And I sent in
And I got this letter back that said...

Friday, November 18, 2011

Over the River and Through the Woods

As I write, I am taking into account last minute travel preparations. Electrical cords must be unplugged. The heat must be turned down low. Don't forget the coffee pot. Bags must be checked, then rechecked. What have I forgotten? I always forget something. Is there any way to avoid NOT forgetting something? Whatever I misplace can usually be purchased upon reaching my destination, should it be essential.

Several months back, I bought an expensive and very large piece of luggage. Prior bags were not quite large enough for long trips, and I was tired of having to get extremely creative in cramming. A week's worth of laundry, for me, is two full loads in a washing machine. The purchase was also a way to avoid having to pay extra for checked luggage. I look at it across the room from me, still open, waiting for the last of my material possessions. It is a deep shade of royal blue. Once upright, it handles a little like driving a boat, or perhaps a Cadillac.

My inner monologue will soon read like this.

Don't forget tickets. Don't forget tickets. Don't forget a photo ID. Don't lose your boarding pass. What else? What else? What else?

Considering the distance in miles, the flight never lasts very long. It's a fairly perfunctory trip. As far as flight paths are concerned, it's more or less a straight shot. Sometimes we arrive very early and circle around until given permission to land. Other options don't exist. Thirteen or fourteen hours in a car is not feasible, nor is twenty-two on a train. The entire flight is almost a little comical. We take off, climb to the appropriate cruising altitude, stay there for approximately thirty minutes, then begin the descent.

Today, as soon as I make my way outside the apartment, I go from a bus to a train to a train to a plane. In that order. After roughly two hours in a aluminum tube, I strain to hear gate assignments as overhead bins click open all around me. The world shrinks. DC efficiency, affluence, and punctuality have been left behind. I adopt the familiar slower pace, my gait falling back into all the old rhythms. The airport back home has a preponderance of barbecue joints and old carpet. It looks like a house that is clean and tidy, but showing its age.

My father's face or my mother's face or both will greet me. Those picking up passengers line the sides of a long white railing. Astride wave after wave of the arrived, airline pilots and crews ascend the escalator leading into the terminal. The airport is small enough that all traffic is funneled through exactly one security point. There was a time, before 11 September 2001, where whomever was waiting for me could stand by the gate. Now only ticketed passengers are allowed there. I've made that short trip by foot many times, so many I've lost count.

On travel days, I am especially aware of the Testimony of Simplicity. Each Quaker Testimony is meant to be applied to the self first and foremost. When I am confronted with how much stuff I have to take with me, I wonder about my priorities. I wonder about the priorities of this consumer society of which I am a part. Am I doing enough to prune down to only that which I need? I feel like I do fairly well in that regard, but I can always do more.

As I gorge myself on turkey and several side dishes made only once a year for the holiday, I can't help but notice the irony. I've never been the sort of person who was unduly upset by Starving Children in Africa™. Instead, I've tried to let my life's example show for who I am, instead of taking the opportunity to beat up on myself for not being perfect and pure.

As I conclude, I was recently re-introduced to a Mary Oliver poem, one I had not read in years. I enclose it here.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Quaker History Lesson

I wrote this specifically for my Meeting, but a few of you might find this interesting. Apologies in advance for typos. This is part of what I do with my day.

Hello Friends,

Over the past couple of weeks I've been reading the book Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience. The work is written by Douglas Gwyn and published by Pendle Hill Press. My desire to take on this task was motivated partially out of an active curiosity to best understand our formation. In the beginning, I merely wanted to find out the precise reason why Friends developed unprogrammed worship. But as I've read more and more, I've been engaged in seeking parallels between the Occupy activists of today and the nascent Quaker movement of the past. I do hope you find this interesting, even useful.

In the course of reading, I've learned lots of interesting information, so much so that I hardly know where to start. Here, I will talk directly to what I perceive to be the strengths and the limitations of the Occupiers. What seems to have ensured the eventual success of the Quaker movement, in part, was the early establishment of wealthy supporters and a base of operation. In this case, I am speaking of Margaret Fell, the Mother of Quakerism, and Fell's first husband Thomas. Their wealth and influence in 1650's England was invaluable. Thomas Fell had been a Member of Parliament but resigned in protest when Oliver Cromwell took control as Lord Protector.

The Fell estate at Swarthmore Hall became the epicenter of Quakerism for years. The Fells themselves had regularly been drawn to radical Protestant thought well before, but their Convincement as Quakers legitimized the Society of Friends in the eyes of many. Prior to that, most converts came from the rough-and-tumble North of England, a good place to find and foment radicalized thought, even while it possessed its own severe limitations.

The more affluent, influential, and powerful South, however, took a while to win Friends. Southern Quakerism adopted a very different form when conversion did go forward. London Friends were far removed from Yorkshire Friends, for instance. Even so, Fox and the other leaders are to be commended for drafting successful strategies to put in place for each region, recognizing rather than resisting unique cultural dynamics. Northern Quakerism remained more radicalized and more reactionary. Southern Quakerism, to cite another example, made sure to leave room for women's voices in the leadership structure; the book implies that Northern Friends would not have acted in kind otherwise.

Gwyn writes on the subject of relative uniformity in Quaker belief. He states,

But of course there is no such thing as pure experience. We frame all experience within certain assumptions and expectations.

...As time went on, Quaker rhetoric increasingly sounded themes of consistency of faith and practice, the unity of Friends in faith and practice, and the need to verify individual truth-claims according to methods of corporate discernment. For instance, during the 1660s, when the Restoration regime feared Quakers as plotters of armed insurgency, Friends began to articulate their pacifist position more clearly, emphasizing that they had submitted peacefully to persecutors [a decade before] and would continue to live consistently in this manner of obedience to Christ's teaching and example.

Rifts sometimes existed within Friends. This included charismatic London minister James Nayler and his cult of personality, which would ultimately end in tragedy. That particular story is well known with Friends. For a time after the Nayler debacle, Quaker energies were devoted to disrupting individual Meetings within Friends rather than churches and steeplehouses of other Christian groups. Sometimes the temptation for a circular firing squad is prominent. However, the schism did heal with time.

A major distinction of supreme importance in the early days took into account a precise definition of the movement itself. Some wished to embrace the notion of the invisible church, whereby individual group identity was less important than solidarity with other religious groups. In some ways, this might be roughly analogous to the liberal inclination for interfaith work. Some believed in the notion of the visible church, where distinct identity and strict separation from other faith groups was necessary. To speak out against persecution, it is necessary to adopt a unified identity and front.

In the end, however, basic pragmatism allowed Quakerism to flourish and persist when many faith and political groups did not. Fox and other leaders were aware that their new faith would need to change with the passage of time and to take into account prior mistakes and missteps. Other groups, among them Ranters, Levellers, Diggers, Seekers, and Fifth Monarchists eventually ceased to be. Often, their own stubborn inability and inflexibility to adapt spelled the end. Though Friends did not reach a fully formative state for at least two decades, their membership grew steadily from the beginning, in some areas quite rapidly. George Fox, in large part, helped orchestrate a successful, closely defined leadership structure once membership grew sufficiently large enough to require it.

350 years later, here we are today.

In the Light,


My Aim Is True

For wrong or for right, I have been this guy once or twice.

Oh it's so funny to be seeing you after so long, girl.
And with the way you look I understand
that you were not impressed.

But I heard you let that little friend of mine
take off your party dress.
I'm not going to get too sentimental
like those other sticky valentines,

'cause I don't know if you've been loving some body.
I only know it isn't mine.

Alison, I know this world is killing you.
Oh, Alison, my aim is true.

Well I see you've got a husband now.
Did he leave your pretty fingers lying
in the wedding cake?

You used to hold him right in your hand.
I'll bet he took all he could take.

Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking
when I hear the silly things that you say.

I think somebody better put out the big light,
cause I can't stand to see you this way.

Alison, I know this world is killing you.
Oh, Alison, my aim is true.
My aim is true.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


That odd looking acronym above is actually a specialized form of therapy. In particular, it's designed for those who have PTSD or incidents of trauma in their lives. My first session was today and over the course of 90 minutes, the psychologist and I covered quite a bit of ground. I've noted most of the details multiple times, so that in itself was not especially out of the ordinary. I rattle off psychological jargon and past events like some people talk about books they like or where they want to go for a vacation. Psychologists appreciate how uninhibited I am, though I should add that regular sorts of people have not. Which is why I'm going through EMDR.

Sometimes, with certain childhood memories, I feel like I'm describing someone else's life. The analogy I draw goes like this. Rock musicians have often stated that, with time, playing a huge hit in concert feels a bit like performing a cover. Once your calling card has become that well-known, the artist gives up ownership, passing along that ownership to the audience. For me, prior methods and modalities of addressing the same core issues have failed. Now it's time for something very different.

In the meantime, I'm cautioned to avoid emotionally loaded and unstable situations. Should I currently be in a dysfunctional environment, EMDR would not be recommended. The process runs the risk of being triggering and uncomfortable, though I will first learn relaxation techniques, should I ever find myself in a situation that is too distressing. The EMDR lingo for this is the concept of "safe place". I'm optimistic, but also a little nervous. Should I start to have panic attacks in the shower, for example, I know I'll need to decrease the sensitivity of treatment. However, I am willing to take my chances if it means other aspects of my health will be improved.

Mainly, I'm tired of being anxious, fearful, and hypersensitive. I routinely project my own phobias onto other people, seeing enemies where there are none and desires to harm me that do not exist. This is clearly a result of childhood trauma, and one I hope the most will be positively affected. I may always be a little socially awkward and shy, but those qualities are tolerable. It's the side effects that are out of the ordinary, as described above, that I would go to any lengths to put aside forever.

The video below might better illustrate the technique.

The Occupy Movement Needs a Good Sales Pitch

Over the weekend, the Quaker Meeting of which I am a member debated our own role in the Occupy movement. The issue had been brought before the entire congregation by a long-time prominent Friend. Two speakers had been invited. Both were actively involved with the movement, one a Quaker, and one not. Each represented one of the two Occupy DC groups still camped out across the city. Freedom Plaza is full of older, more professional activists with more coordinated strategies. McPherson Square is younger, more spontaneous, and provides a diverse plethora of ideas.

During the meeting, the fundamental difference between the McPherson Square occupiers and the Freedom Plaza activists broke down along these lines. Freedom Plaza’s long term participants believed that McPherson Square’s leadership and formation was hopelessly amateur and unruly. McPherson Square, by contrast, sought to be most authentic and populist, believing that Freedom Plaza wants all the attention for itself.

Both speakers had their say and answered questions from those seated. When it was decision time, the form of self-governance known as Quaker process began. It is also known as the consensus method, and has been adopted by the demonstrators themselves to some form or fashion. We wrestled considerably with the issue for over an hour. Quaker process gives every attender a voice, which is fair and democratic, but also time consuming. An issue is not said to reach consensus until everyone’s grievance has been taken into account. Not unsurprisingly, we ourselves broke into two camps.

Some wanted to use Meeting funds to pay the cost of Occupy DC’s essential material needs. These included, but are not limited to sleeping bags, warm clothing for winter, and food. We might have agreed to this option, except that a concern arose that the Meeting’s non-profit, tax-exempt status might be jeopardized. This, should we be perceived to be lending our support to an unapologetically leftist political movement. Other Friends felt deep ambivalence that two groups existed at all, implying that surely unity, if not unanimity was possible. In the end, it was agreed that individual Friends would support the gathering themselves, without direct Meeting financial support or by using said support to purchase materials.

The concerns of most were those of fear and confusion. They were reluctant to get directly involved in any activist movement that has yet to develop a sharply defined cohesive mission statement. Along with that were concerns that the movement was unlikely to grow and potentially likely to disband during the winter now not far away. But among the champions of the demonstrators, the Friend who brought this issue before the greater Meeting stated that the Occupy movement was, in her words, “the new Civil Rights Movement.” I myself would have to strongly disagree on that point.

As has been the case since the very day the protests began, the outside world has chosen to define the movement on its own terms. Some optimistic left-wing activists see the promise of needed reform only inches away. Much as they did with the election of Barack Obama, they project the idea that almost every progressive cause will be enacted the longer the Occupiers persist. Disingenuous, posturing right-wingers sound the alarm, perceiving the danger of so-called mob rule. Neither are correct.

But for the sake of accuracy, that which we now call the African-American Civil Rights Movement was not an especially swift collective effort. What makes Civil Rights fundamentally different is how it relied on wealth and power to achieve its goals. White liberals, often of substantial political agency and financial solvency, backed the movement. It took nearly sixty years for Plessy v. Ferguson to be overturned by Brown v. Board of Education. Following that, the second phase of the movement also took time and lots of sober contemplation.

An immaculately planned endeavor from the very start, African-American leaders rightly took center stage. Martin Luther King, Jr. among many other black leaders (and sometimes white leaders) stood out in front to legitimize the movement and speak to its aims and intentions. Facts like these are not often spoken about, but they are essential to understand. White progressive voices like Hubert Humphrey, who proposed and achieved a Civil Rights plank to Harry Truman’s 1948 Presidential re-election run did much to set the scene. Even those who are privileged and well-to-do can still feel a moral obligation for all people to have equal rights and citizenship under the law.

The Occupy Movement, as it exists today, advances an economic populist ideology. It divides people into the 1% whose greed is the sum of all terrible things or the oppressed, subjugated 99%. It is uncertain whether the wealthy, well-connected, and powerful would ever get behind a political view which places them directly in the cross-hairs. No model or historical invocation yet specifies how to overthrow calcified, hierarchical systems based on capital. Single-issue protests like those which rose up against the draft during Vietnam proved successful in their own time, for a time. The war over, the protests no longer ceased to be.

Occupy DC, or any Occupy gathering, finds itself faced with different challenges. Regardless of what it advances, it must first win over the skeptics. Right now, its most immediate problem is itself. Before any organization, religious or otherwise, opens up its coffers or sends its membership to toil on the front line, it must be able to latch on in a way that it understands. Part of achieving an adequate following is working within the framework of extant systems. It is not a deficit of purity to modify a message to attain the oxygen needed for greater growth. If the Occupy protesters want to be the change they wish to see, they need to think a little differently.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Crystal Ball

The rest of this week will mostly likely be lighter on posting than usual. I have several time-consuming appointments scheduled from today on out, then leave for Thanksgiving and home on Friday. My stay will be for a full week. Expect posting to be both unsubstantial and sporadic during that time. In many ways, I'm looking forward to a temporary break in the action.

My wish (if not prayer) for all of you is that you might enjoy family time, should those be your plans. Sometimes family arrives with its own baggage, transforming the prospect of a happy gathering into a dysfunctional mess. Speaking only for myself, I have with time put aside the resentment and hard feelings I once felt. What really stands out for me is that I see my father more and more as an old man with his own ample health problems. In younger years, we fought constantly, as two strong-willed people are apt to do. I regret those days, though I think that sparring simply may have been part of the process of maturation.

I now have the foresight to view a possible scenario for the future. In time, I know I will need to assist with Dad's direct care. This may be a decade or more down the road, but I am beginning to emotionally and intellectually prepare myself for it. He cared for his aging parents and I will probably do the same. Dad has designated me on many occasions as the most responsible of his children and as the most attentive one. During a recent trip overseas, I was denoted as the point person and the conveyor of news and information. Should the worst happen, I gathered that putting together a solution would fall on my shoulders. I am humbled by this distinction on one level, but also made uncomfortable by what it spells out from here going forward.

As I conclude, here's a word of advice. Hear it, if you can, should you find it relevant. Your parents will become increasingly more and more important the older you get. Paradoxically, the farther they move towards their eventual end of life, the more you will need them. Don't let the opportunity slip through your fingers. This advice is, I recognize, not true for everyone. Certain people have had to learn a very hard lesson, often early in their own existence. For them, family is more trouble than it's worth. But even though you may distance yourself to preserve your sanity, you may still have to eventually intervene when your folks can no longer care for themselves. It will arrive sooner than you even imagine. Life passes quickly, especially when observed in hindsight.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Fallacy of Good Intentions

In my writing, I find myself sometimes compelled to challenge, to stretch. My intention is not to insult or to disregard the views of others, but rather to expand the discussion. In my religious work, I often feel led to do much the same thing. My vocal ministry has at times been taken as offensive, but I have chosen to speak for reasons and motives beyond myself. Some of what I’ve written has been challenged in return, much as the spoken words I've offered in the context of a religious service.

Once more, I seek the same ends and hope to achieve them. Authorities are now attempting to discern whether the Penn State child molestation case can be prosecuted under the Clery Act. The Act requires the prompt reporting of on-campus crimes to law enforcement agencies and for said crimes to be publicly and statistically documented. The legislation itself has a complicated history, one that is rarely reported in full because the facts are sensitive. I will present the facts of the case, and you can form your own reflections from then, should you wish.

In 1986, Jeanne Clery was a student enrolled at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. This much is common knowledge. But among the many details that are not regularly reported are those of race and economic status. Jeanne was wealthy and white. One terrible evening, having returned from a night out of heavy drinking, she returned to her dorm room. Her level of intoxication was so extreme and her judgment so impaired that several other students were very concerned. Those who also lived in the same dorm deliberately kept three doors propped open for the ease of checking on her. Tragically, the unlocked doors provided a fatal and entirely unforeseen consequence; they allowed her attacker to enter the dorm unimpeded.

After robbing the room, the assailant then raped and killed Clery. Details not regularly reported are that her assailant was poor and black. He was also a Lehigh student. In time, he would be caught when he bragged about the crime and showed the stolen goods to other students. Following their daughter’s murder and assault, the parents forced a huge financial settlement from the university. However, they also advanced an incomplete version of the truth. According to their side of the story, it had been egregiously wrong for university police to have allowed the doors to stay open, without documenting the well-meaning reasons why. They attempted to paint the university as dangerous and crime-ridden, which is an extreme exaggeration. Bethlehem has its incidents of violent crime, like any other city, but statistics prove that the campus is very safe.

Rape and violence are egregiously underreported on college campuses. Campus police and the administration often take a hand’s-off approach towards assaults committed against young women. However, it is important that we take into account a truthful retelling of what really happened. Facts should be sufficient enough to ensure that crimes are properly reported and perpetrators are prosecuted. As was true with the Natalee Holloway case, we have discovered that violent acts committed against young white women from privileged backgrounds usually attain far more media coverage. This was also true with the Clery rape and murder. Her family’s wealth also managed to push a bill through the U.S. Congress, where it was eventually signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. It is, as you might expect, now known as the Clery Act.

How are we to address the race and class identification of the rapist/murderer? One line of logic says we ought to be sympathetic towards all historically marginalized groups, especially when economic and class inequality produces a protracted state of cultural famine. However, this sympathy would also mean that we would have to look at the crimes committed a very different way. But would examining this criminal offense from a different light mean that our desire for justice would be somehow changed? To be sure, Jeanne Clery's attacker did not go unpunished. He was eventually put to death by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for the murder. For people like me, who oppose the death penalty, regardless of the circumstance, I question this definition of retribution. The tragedy here works on many levels, almost too many to mention.

Again, facts are usually condemning enough. Sometimes well-meaning people make awful situations even worse by transferring their own bias. In the last Meeting for Worship in which I participated, someone rose to state that perhaps evil incarnate is born of those who hold what they think to be entirely noble leanings. It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And other times, people do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Both of these fallacies are related, but neither will advance us as a race towards greater understanding.

Quote of the Week

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."- Oscar Wilde

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Saturday Video

Ten years living in a paper bag
Feedback baby, he's a flipped out cat
He's a platinum canary, drinkin' falstaff beer
Mercedes rule, and a rented lear

Bottom feeder insincere
Prophet lo-fi pioneer
Sell the house and go to school
Get a young girlfriend, daddy's jewel

A change would do you good
A change would do you good

God's little gift is on the rag
Poster girl posing in a fashion mag
Canine, feline, Jekyll and Hyde

Wear your fake fur on the inside
Queen of south beach, aging blues
Dinner's at six, wear your cement shoes

I thought you were singing your heart out to me
Your lips were syncing and now I see

A change would do you good
A change would do you good

Chasing dragons with plastic swords
Jack off Jimmy, everybody wants more
Scully and angel on the kitchen floor
And I'm calling Buddy on the ouija board

I've been thinking 'bout catching a train
Leave my phone machine by the radar range
Hello it's me, I'm not at home
If you'd like to reach me, leave me alone

A change would do you good
A change would do you good

Hello, it's me, I'm not at home
If you'd like to reach me, leave me alone

A change would do you good
A change would do you good

Friday, November 11, 2011

19 Years Later

After a fresh set of allegations about an institution that covered up child abuse, what are we to make of Sinead O'Connor? This video begins with a slightly modified rendition of Bob Marley's "War", performed here a capella. Immediately following the song, O'Connor infamously tears up a picture of Pope John Paul II. "Fight the real enemy," she angrily proclaims.

I still see this act as sanctimonious and ineffective, at best. But I do sympathize with the sentiment, however improperly rendered it may be. The decision destroyed her career's forward momentum and was widely viewed as odious and offensive. This was years before the first few allegations about priest abuse began to trickle out and become common knowledge. Would we say that O'Connor has now been vindicated, or that her words still retain their ability to outrage?

War - Sinéad O'CONNOR ( a cappella) on TV in 1992 by Petite-Pince-Sans-Rire

Stopping Bullies Requires Everyone's Help

The subject of bullying and how to prevent it has recently gotten lots of attention. The suicides of LGBT youth led to the introduction of the “It Gets Better” campaign. Internet-based bullying finally has begun to be taken seriously. Legislation to combat the practice is now under debate in Michigan and will likely spread to others. It would seem that now people are willing to be honest with each other. In response to what has always been a substantial problem, for the first time, well-reasoned, targeted strategies have been advanced to end the practice.

Travis Brown is a Lafayette, Indiana, based motivational speaker and anti-bullying coach. He has adopted the stage name Mr. MOJO for use during his stops at high schools across the country. Mr. Brown and I recently spoke at some length about his work and what he intends to accomplish. As Mr. MOJO, he offers schools and school systems the ability to extensively participate in his multi-tiered system.

In an ideal setting, he speaks to students, teachers, administrators, and parents. In addition to motivational talks, his program incorporates a written tool-kit of specific areas for discussion. A large aspect of his work seeks to empower student leadership, identifying leaders from within the student body, who are influential forces on the greater body. These leaders formulate strategies in which teenagers can recognize instance of bullying and draw immediate, effective attention to them.

Brown knows well that the problems of bullying are not usually simplistic in origin, nor are the resolutions. Only through collaborative effort and teamwork can real progress be made, especially when a culture of leniency exists. In that situation, bullies recognize that they can continue the practice unimpeded, knowing that they will never get into trouble. Having discussed the nature of anti-bullying practices, it is worthwhile knowing what motivates students to prey on others.

Most bullying between adolescents can be boiled down to matters of rivalry and competition. Girls bully. Boys bully. Each gender, however, takes a slightly different approach and focuses on separate variables. For example, bullying behaviors include a constant need to jockey for position. The ultimate end is to see, by the end of the day, who is number one. A well-defined pecking order exists, as well as a constant need to measure up to some arbitrary, shifting standard. Girls often fight with each other based on physical appearance, body image, who they date, how they dress, and similar other factors. The anonymity and prevalence of the internet has been a great leveler, and not exactly for the best. Girls have grown recently more empowered to bully and when they do, they regularly resort to online character attacks.

Boys bully each other for different, but somewhat related reasons. Young men are judged for being appropriately masculine enough, scrutinized for how effectively they fit into identity groups, ranked based the type of car they drive, and held accountable for their success or lack of success in dating. An aspect of policing, gender or otherwise, does also exist here. Part of bullying involves a group aspect of demanded conformity, and those who stick out or cannot help but stick out are much more likely to be the focus.

There’s a certain kind of competition here, an aspect of playing king of the hill. The goal is to win the right to be the alpha male. In another era, this sort of rivalry might be consigned to a fist-fight after school, but that ancient aspect of resolving disputes grows less and less commonplace with time. Boys are now using more passive-aggressive tactics, many times resorting to similar aspects of shame and blame. Physical violence has now given way to psychological violence, the sort of which often produces suicide attempts and self-harm. One can always argue that we are a less violent society, at least in one regard, but violence seems to have shape-shifted over the decades.

How do we stop this from happening? Travis Brown has his own perspective. His work on the ground leads him to believe that parents are the single most important aspect in whether or not a teenager becomes a bully. Inadequate parenting breeds bullying tactics. Teachers are also a factor, since they observe and choose whether not to report incidents of bullying. Additionally, he believes that there must be a competent, decisive, proactive administrative staff present within a school or school district. Within a high school, specifically, strong leadership must be clearly visible from the principal on down the chain. Schools where administration makes a point to be regularly seen are more successful. Some principals and administrative staff conduct their work in isolation; these are often the schools where bullying is prevalent.

It takes everyone’s involvement to stop bullying. Lacking the commitment and support of one aspect of the problem complicates the solution. Brown often has to work within the parameters set for him. Some schools only want a one-time-only talk in front of the student body. Other schools agree to have him return several times, as he would prefer, so that he can implement more specific strategies. Today’s teenagers are very different from those in earlier generations. Like we ourselves, they are still trying to make sense of a rapidly changing world, while still absorbing the insight and history of the generations which came before them.

Brown acknowledges that he is always learning. The Mr. MOJO program has been subtly tweaked and modified with time, this often because of student feedback. He concedes he will probably always have to stay current to stay relevant, but is up for the challenge. Every year, young people deal with problems that have never previously existed. Whether we are parents, teachers, administrative faculty, or regular citizens, we all shoulder some of the blame. Recent events in the news have shown the tragedy of silent complicity and the unwillingness to report crimes in a timely fashion. It may not take a village to protect a child, but we could always use a few more vigilant villagers.

For more information about Travis Brown and Mr. MOJO, follow this link.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Our Love/Hate Relationship with Privilege

Living in DC among the educationally and monetarily privileged is often a disconcerting feeling. Friends and acquaintances hold degrees from reputable universities and colleges, frequently more than one. At times, I must admit I feel as though I missed out on something important. Often I believe that my own academic career was inferior. As is often the case in many situations, my self-admitted inferiority complex turns to resentment in a snap of the fingers. I recognize this is not an especially fair notion to hold, but instant emotional responses are not always rational. One might call it a particularly commonplace chip on the shoulder.

Until halfway through high school, I was on a track to win a scholarship to a prestigious school. Many who knew me back then assumed that outcome was all but assured. But I got sick, really sick. For the first time, I suffered with long-lasting and serious periods of depression. Because of the severity of the symptoms, frequent hospitalization became almost a way of life. My GPA plummeted and by the time I limped across the finish line, the only options available to me were in Alabama. I sensibly enrolled in a state school close to home, where I could be close to my doctors. It was a smart decision, but one that killed a little bit of my spirit.

I began my undergraduate career in a school with very few women’s studies classes and approximately one class in queer theory. We’ve often talked about the real world value of such majors and minors, when they are even available. That’s not exactly where I’m going with this post. Had there been more options to me, I know I would have deliberately left electives open specifically for the purpose. I am envious of the programs across the country that provide ample classes in women’s studies, gender studies, or queer studies. The anxious masculinity which often attempts to manifest itself had quite a hold on me in a younger year. I have pondered since then whether I might have reached conclusions earlier I only achieved relatively recently. I realize that I was struggling with my own concept of masculinity and it took years of self-examination to really begin to find some peace of mind.

At times I observe the behavior of certain men on feminist websites or on feminist topics, usually in the comment sections. There would have been a time where I would have conceded many a straw man argument. I might have even agreed with a particularly irrelevant hairsplitting point, feeling my own masculinity somehow under attack. The violently misogynist commenters are very different. The ones who use violent language to express their feelings of insecurity and rejection have never won anything but my contempt. They should probably win my eventual sympathy, but I’m afraid I’m not quite there yet. It is ones who are only a few degrees away from greater understanding who often linger in my thoughts.

I am speaking of class distinctions here to some extent. Simple economics are partially a result, though other factors dictate how any culture or sub-culture perceives that men ought to act or ought to present their feelings. There must be a group mentality in place that provides men the ability to be vulnerable and examine masculinity as a gender construct, not as irrefutable fact. As it stands now, the available educational resources are frustratingly limited in scope. As limited as they are for women and deconstructing gender, they are even more so for men. I don’t mean to talk about men as some singular entity. Men are different from each other, very different, even if gender roles insist to the contrary. Some men will naturally be inclined to look outside the gender box and others will not.

Often we express no small indignation when women’s reproductive rights are infringed, particularly by proposed legislation. I am, of course, referring to Mississippi’s recently failed ballot initiative here. While I am frustrated at those who wanted to define an embryo as a person, I do also understand their chip on the shoulder attitudes. It is an attitude of the unheard, the financially impoverished, and the automatically disqualified because of a lack of privilege. It is a perspective of those who went to Ole Miss, Mississippi State, or Southern Miss, not Columbia, Rutgers, or the University of Chicago. It is peculiar that while we may entertain anti-intellectual views, we still value higher education as a basic social value. We have a love/hate relationship with education in this country and we may always have.

And it isn’t until we seriously close a gap in basic economic inequality that these resentments will subside. I grew up eating fast food on a consistent basis, for example. Many of the people with whom I now associate find this disgusting. They were raised by exacting, exceptionally health conscious parents. But often lacking adequate economic resources and possessing a very different cultural mindset, no one finds anything wrong with a diet full of starch and saturated fat. It is this disconnect that does not create understanding, instead those who oppose us are mysterious. There is nothing quite as offensive as that which we cannot understand.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Nothing's Shocking, Except Child Sexual Abuse

On Monday, I shared my own story here. The Herman Cain, and especially the Jerry Sandusky charges both prompted me to write a more detailed account of the sexual abuse I experienced in childhood. The accusers in both cases all have something in common, that beyond some aspect or another of unwanted, non-consensual sexual acts. The accused are alive and able to face the allegations.

The man who molested me is dead. He has been deceased for many years. I don’t think he was ever formally charged with anything, since the family never publicly acknowledged the abuse. In an effort to try to speak to the part of me that cries out for justice, I’ve considered many options. I’ve even wondered whether confronting the other party who was himself abused might provide further answers and needed context. However, no person-to-person interaction could be potentially more awkward and emotionally combustible. He may not want to recall or to remember, and I don’t want to impinge upon his privacy.

In the context of some retroactive legal proceeding, of course, requesting information in this fashion might make some sense. However, he and I have not talked in over a decade. We were never friends. Being that we were both innocent participants in a coerced act, silence and evasiveness typified our behavior towards each other. At the ballpark, at school, or around town, we avoided each other consciously. Should our paths ever cross by coincidence, we never made eye contact. The two of us harbored a terrible secret, one I think he could not help but remember more fully because of his proximity to the source. His own father was the abuser.

My post of Monday did not spell out specifics because I don’t want to be seen as adding any element of needless sensation to what was already horrific enough. Here, for the sake of comprehension, I will be a little more specific. If you want to get technical about it, the exact term is called child-on-child sexual abuse. The two of us were forced, or at least emotionally manipulated into performing a sex act on each other. There was more to it than that, but this is enough for now. Factor in an aspect of inter-sibling incest, itself its own abuse, this between older and younger brother. Knowing this, one can now see the complexities.

The patterns and particulars of abuse involving an older adult perpetrator and a dysfunctional family are never simple. I’ve since read that these things are, depressingly enough, both extremely common and among the least reported. Should a stranger be involved, we have no emotional connection to the assailant. So we’re more comfortable with breaking our complicit silence in that circumstance. With family members, however, this is not quite so easily accomplished.

In the end, who started it is important, but is only one part of achieving some resolution. The direction that child sexual abuse takes afterward is also crucial. Children often mimic and act out on other kids what has been done to them. Should they be under the age of twelve or so, as I was, they are not old enough in their own sexual maturation to make sense of what happened. For me, personally, my brain decided to use disassociation to forcibly block out much of what happened. I think the other boy involved, who was also my age, may have had so many other experiences that he remembers more than I do. After all, I lived three or four houses down. He had to live with it on a daily basis.

In my last post on this topic, I was critical of how we submerge and leave criminal acts like these unreported. Yet, it was once much worse. Second-wave feminists of the 1960’s and 1970’s are to be commended for providing a safe space for women to talk about rape and sexual assault. Their work has made it possible for both men and women to feel comfortable telling their stories. What we may see now is the beginning of a generational shift for the better. It may be further possible to confront these details, which still retain their ability to shock, disgust, anger, and sicken. Nothing may be sacred anymore, but perhaps fewer things are too taboo to even be discussed.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Monday, November 07, 2011

Contemplating the Unthinkable. Responsibly Addressing Childhood Sexual Abuse

The on-going scandal regarding former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, his alleged abuse of young boys, and the potential cover-up by university officials has affected me deeply. And yet, it is not the only story current on the radar screens concerns sexual improprieties. First two, now four accusers have stepped forward against Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain, accusing him of, at minimum, sexual harassment.

Returning to the Sandusky case, I can barely even scan through the long list of specific abuse allegations, all documenting years of unthinkable behavior towards young boys. Even so, I know I must not avoid these details, since I would otherwise have a tendency to bury them or obscure the truth myself. Though I might find them triggering, I know I must attain some sense, some understanding of the forthcoming case. Some subjects, even in this age of perhaps excessive candor, are awful enough that we routinely adopt cultural, corporate amnesia as a means of coping. In that regard, we might all be victims, as we are all enablers. In the spirit of full disclosure, I know this more extensively than I wish I did.

I was sexually abused, beginning when I was eight years old. The perpetrator was an older man, the father of two boys in the neighborhood. His two sons and I regularly played together, being that they lived three houses down. I remember being invited over to their house frequently. With my father at work and my mother raising an infant, my youngest sibling, I had the freedom and the ability to roam around more or less unsupervised. While the actual details of what happened are important, they are not necessary in this context. To be honest without seeming evasive, I will say only that I was made to feel as though I was participating in a strange sort of game.

Before asking any questions or making any judgments, I have learned that one has to put oneself in the mindset of a child to begin to understand. At that age, kids are taught to follow whatever instructions adults ask of them. Trusting by nature, they rarely reject requests or demands that seem to be perfectly acceptable, at least when framed to appear that way. The perpetrator was also someone in the neighborhood I knew, who was known by others, which is often the case, another reason why I kept the events to myself until many years later.

Now, in my adult life, I have spent years piecing together the details. The memories are scattered, which in time I have learned is very common. I speak on this painful subject to emphasize the unacceptable prevalence of child sexual abuse. We can (and do) talk regularly about epidemics of autism, handgun violence, or violence in movies or videos games. Where we do not go, nor wish to linger is the subject of pedophilia. Combine our societal squeamishness with rape along with the tender age of the victim and we’d just as soon shut our eyes. A code of silence, in addition to a subtle complicity, keeps criminal acts like these from even being reported in the first place. This is what we’ve seen in the Roman Catholic Church for years and it is what we are observing here, now, on a smaller scale.

Even in this era of ghoulish violence and increased bullying, I think there are still places we dare not to tread. On matter of sexual assault, especially when they involve children, we have an unfortunate tendency to normalize or to even deny outright. Should they be brought to the attention of a mass audience, an uncomfortable public doesn’t know how to process the details. The emotional distress is palpable but before long we’ve changed the subject, again. Some have asked me over time why I didn’t speak out. Now, more than twenty years later, I will reply again that I was simply too scared and, young as I was, had no clue that what I was being repeatedly asked to do was abnormal and wrong.

Our conception of gender, particularly the idea of masculinity also makes us complicit in silence. I recall that at the time I was still too young to really understand all the things that men are taught about being male. I did, however, even at that age, absorb the idea that men were not supposed to exhibit certain behaviors to other men. It would be years before I learned the word “homophobia” and could assign my feelings to a particular vocabulary term. But here I was, clearly participating in an act that went against all I had learned and taken in from my environment. Because another man was involved, this only complicated my perception of what I was doing. And again, as a child, I didn’t have the developed reasoning skills of an adult. This created a massive amount of confusion and cognitive dissonance, much of which I am still unpacking. I will probably be unpacking it for years to come.

We’re still not entirely comfortable with the idea of homosexuality, regardless of where it falls on the spectrum of sexual orientation. It’s tempting for some, usually on the right, to use these sorts of incidents to reinforce the idea that all gay or queer men are really pedophiles at heart. And on the left, few ask the really pithy, pertinent questions that might lead to greater understanding and comprehension. We might ask what we can do to loosen the blanketing stigma so that child molestation is promptly reported. It shouldn’t take years and repeated incidents to finally reach the tipping point. The first allegation should be the last, regardless of circumstance or degree.

We might also ask each other the really difficult questions over which we usually, nervously skirt. Why do some people feel a need to sexually abuse children? Were they abused themselves and, if they were, how do we take their past into account? Aside from a few tactics and strategies that have been in practice for a long time, we would do well to develop new methods that proceed directly to the root cause. And as we do, we should be willing to remain in disquieting, uncomfortable spaces long enough to see that justice is served and healing proceeds.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Quote of the Week

"Injustice will be ended when those who are not wronged are as indignant as those who are"- Anonymous

Friday, November 04, 2011

The Overwhelming Question: How Does Anyone Make Money Online?

Feminist writer and novelist Courtney Martin has written a recent column in The Nation explaining the challenges in fundraising for online activism. Though her column specifically pertains to online feminist activism, especially for young adults, much of what it covers is pertinent for other many groups. This is especially true as regards the not-so-simple matter of funding. The tedious argument which leads us to an overwhelming question is this: How does anyone really make money on the internet?

Feminist activism is certainly not lacking for drive and motivation. What appealed to me the first time I dipped a cautious toe into that passionate stew was the energy I observed. Impartiality is rare. Often fiery, routinely forceful, one could never say that the subjects under debate were for the milquetoast. I have to say that in the beginning, I brought a few subtle misconceptions with me, many centered around gender, biases that were proven to be unfounded not long after I arrived. As is also true with many men who choose to be active, I had to learn that criticism of certain offending souls who shared my assigned gender had nothing to do with me. I wish others would take the time to recognize the same thing I have.

With the misunderstandings that can often only be resolved by direct participation, an especially frustrating challenge that faces Feminism is a question of branding. Although the movement has deliberately taken a broad focus, it finds itself compartmentalized by the outside world. Although it has debated queer and transgender equality, abortion rights, racial diversity, disability rights, and class privilege, among other important issues, it often finds itself judged on a small fraction of its real concerns. Its impact in the greater discourse gets pushed off to the side, which is unfortunate, to say the least. This phenomenon can be observed easily when browsing through a bookstore. No matter how wide in scope the subject matter, feminist writers, much to their frustration, usually find their written works consigned to the “Women’s and Gender Studies” section.

If all that was discussed within online feminism was esoteria, then this qualification would make sense, but it is not the truth. Some writers and thinkers, in particular, have sought to broaden their appeal, not wishing to be typecast only as feminist writers or women's writers. It is true that there there are a few instances in discourse where discussion turns strictly inward, towards those who have absorbed the requisite amount of theory. However, most of the time, activists are more concerned with very tangible aspects and proposed strategies to improve the lives of real women. Few specific problems are mentioned in the abstract, nor is the call for specific solutions any less than plaintive.

So the matter then returns to the difficulty that many bloggers and online-based groups face. Money's always a problem, isn't it? Those who have struggled to make ends meet through publishing online content have often reached the same conclusion. Under the current model, there just isn’t enough of it to go round.

Martin writes,

Other content providers have recently made strides in charging for content; the public service mission of feminist blogging and organizing sites would be undermined if we created barriers to access. Not-for-profit content providers solicit foundation support; this often requires the services and skills of a grant-writer, the kind of institutional staffing a scrappy start-up site doesn’t have. And if a grant-writer were to seek out foundation funding, “Foundations and donors that historically and primarily give to media tend to be stuck in the old paradigm of ‘objective media’ and shy away from advocacy journalism,” says Jo Ellen Kaiser, executive director of the Media Consortium.

Blogs like Feministing, of which I am an editor emeritus, have operated without any formal structure for years. Third-party advertising networks, like Google Adwords, provide the majority of our revenue, but most often there is no money left over—after tech and hosting fees—to pay any of our eleven bloggers. We’ve been caught in a seven-year chicken-or-egg-cycle; at annual retreats, we discuss next steps for formalizing our structure and focusing on becoming financially sustainable, and then our full-time jobs (largely as communications consultants at feminist nonprofits and freelance journalists) crowd out any time to follow up. We’re too busy trying to make ends meet to figure out how to make ends meet.

Understood in Martin’s analysis is the reality that making many aspects of the blogosphere financially tenable will require new ideas. The old models are increasingly irrelevant and unhelpful. A strict reliance on advertising revenue and private donors only promises a hand-to-mouth existence. If ever visionaries were needed, their services are required now. Even if activist websites lowered their standards, I doubt their financial health would be appreciably improved. It isn’t the content providers who need to step up, it’s the monetary sources.

I regularly write about how I am a member of a small faith group that numbers only a few thousand in the United States alone. With time, blogging has become an effective way for us to debate, propose, and revise pertinent theological issues. There is one Quaker site I know of that is somewhat similar. Called QuakerQuaker, it actively solicits contributions from readers, without relying heavily on a team of editors and contributors. Like Feministing, it does rely heavily on ad content and donations from individuals to keep its head above water. I have even made a few small donations here and there to do my part so that it stays up and running. My financial contributions provided hosting and tech fees. Relying almost exclusively on user contributions means that the content varies considerably in quality, but that it does allow every Friend to speak his or her mind.

As it stands, Feminism is not a niche interest pertinent only to specific people. Quakerism can provide a helpful perspective and spiritual guidance for more than other Quakers. The established beliefs, in the meantime, are so strongly grounded in group consciousness that few people are willing to think beyond them. Activism and life are not nearly as meaningful if both are not lived. And as I have noted more recently, too many people see systems and functions in the same way they do consumer goods. To them, there’s always a better deal elsewhere, and there’s always a model designed to fit their own specific instantaneous need. Activism is meant to challenge. Consumerism is meant to placate and pacify. People desperately need to be stretched and exercised, otherwise crucial muscles atrophy.